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Interview With Dan Rather; Obama in the Ozone; Media Blitz Over Princess Di Investigation

Aired December 17, 2006 - 10:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: The Rather factor. The last journalist to interview Saddam Hussein weighs in on charges that the media's coverage of Iraq is to negative. On Katie Couric. On his liberation from corporate journalism. And why he believes Fox News is spouting the Bush administration's line.
Obama in the o-zone. The media's love affair with Barack Obama heats up after his frenzied trip to New Mexico and a star turn on Monday Night Football. Are journalists giving the senator a pass on his record and lack of experience?

And did they seem heartless by turning Senator Tim Johnson's hospitalization into a political drama?

The Princess Di bugging story. International conspiracy or media hype?

Plus ...



CONDOLEEZZA RICE, SECRETARY OF STATE: The new way forward we need to take in Iraq.


KURTZ: The media buy the administration's new buzz phrase.

Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES where today we turn our critical lens on Dan Rather's return to television. I'm Howard Kurtz. Ahead, how one not-even declared presidential candidate seems to have hijacked all the media attention.

But first, Dan Rather covered every conceivable kind of story in his 44 years at CBS from hurricanes to wars to impeachment but then came the firestorm over his piece on President Bush's National Guard service. After a messy break-up last spring he signed on with HDNet founded by Dallas billionaire Mark Cuban and has just launched a weekly program called "Dan Rather Reports" with the opening shows ranging from Washington lobbying to New Orleans recovery.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) DAN RATHER, JOURNALIST: It's a sad thing to say and ought to be a shameful thing to hear but like it or not, the politics of money has become our democratic process in many ways.

That's probably the most important thing the survivors of Katrina and Rita would like you to know, that it could happen to you. Their story could just as easily be yours some day. So you may want to pay attention to how this one ends.


KURTZ: So how does this new venture differ from network news? I spoke with the former anchor from New York.


KURTZ: Dan Rather, welcome.

RATHER: Glad to be with you, Howard, always.

KURTZ: The situation in Iraq is widely considered a mess. Tony Snow told me on this program last week that the media have a failure narrative when it comes to Iraq and Laura Bush said on MSNBC the other day that the reason people think things are so bad there is because of media drumbeat that focuses excessively on the violence. What do you make of those arguments?

RATHER: Well, not very much, Howard.

With respect, this is an old story, that when things go bad, blame the media. We have not been perfect and I include myself in that assessment but it turns out that the media's assessment and what it's communicated with the American public has been far more accurate about the situation on the ground, the real situation on the battlefield than has been the pronouncements out of Washington or that matter from the military itself.

It is a common occurrence to say the problems are not the problems, the people who call attention to the problems are the problem and by any reasonably objective analysis by any decent, attending (ph) person, that doesn't hold up.

I do emphasize that there have been some very good things done by the American mission in Iraq and I do agree that to a certain point that they have been underreported. But overall and in the main I come back to the central point which is the press has done a much better job of informing people what the war is, what it really is, as opposed to what some people in power want us to think it is.

KURTZ: With the obvious limitations that it is difficult for correspondents to get around the country because of the dangers there.

Now you were the last journalist to interview Saddam Hussein back in 2003 on the eve of the Iraq War. I want to play a little bit of that to remind viewers of that conversation.


RATHER: Saddam also rejected Bush administration allegations that besides the missile delivery system, he still has weapons of mass destruction.

SADDAM HUSSEIN, FORMER PRESIDENT OF IRAQ (through translator): I think America and the world also knows that Iraq no longer has the weapons.


KURTZ: Does that answer seem different to you now than it might have seemed at the time when most people did believe that Saddam had WMD?

RATHER: Well, I believed it. When the president of the United States, no matter who he is or what party he belongs to, says that a situation is thus, I tend to believe it and I think most Americans tend to believe him and so when Saddam said that at the time, frankly, my thought was, he's lying.

But it turns out about that at least he was telling the truth and he told more accurate assessments of the situation than we were being told by others.

No misunderstanding about this, Howard. Saddam Hussein was a despot. You cannot be in his presence and not have it go through your mind, he is a stone cold killer. And his record bears that out.

But he said two things in that interview that looking back on it I wish I had paid more attention to.

Number one was he almost vehemently denied that he had weapons of mass destruction and the second was, when I said this amazing, huge American armada, the greatest military force in history is about to come down on you, what do you think of that?

And he said, look, we will absorb a tremendous initial blow. We may absorb tremendous blows after that, but as time goes on, we have our ways and you will see that it will not be easy for the Americans.

And I have thought about that many times since.

KURTZ: Haunting words. And Saddam, of course, sentenced to death, recently, by an Iraqi court.

Let's talk a little bit about your new show on HDNet. I have looked at some of these programs. I think they are very good but not necessarily strikingly different from what I see on the broadcast networks. What do you see as the biggest difference between doing a story for "Dan Rather Reports" and doing one for "60 Minutes"?

RATHER: Well, there are a lot of differences. I could go on and on. I'll try not to.

The biggest difference is that I have total, complete, absolute editorial and creative control. It's a rare journalist - I think it's unique in journalism now, but if not unique, certainly rare. So that's a big difference.

And with respect, Howard, I beg to differ with you about -- it's not too much different from what you see elsewhere. You haven't seen one hour news programs dealing with the kind of subjects that we've dealt with in prime-time. Indeed, you haven't seen very much anywhere else.

There are some exceptions. CNN occasionally, perhaps more than occasionally, does some of this kind of work.

But here's the point. That the idea of doing one subject on the problems of American fighting men and women who have actually fought the war as opposed to those who just babble on about it and the problems the families have.

You haven't seen that in prime-time anywhere.

KURTZ: So when you do a program on the growth and the influence of the Washington lobbyist, the difference here is that you have got a lot of time to explore the details and nuances as opposed to a 12 or 14 minute piece that might run on a newsmagazine show.

RATHER: Absolutely and we also don't have the encumbrances that come naturally by working for a large, international corporate global conglomerate that have their intertwined with needs - legislative needs and regulatory needs in Washington, that HDNet is owned lock, stock and barrel by Mark Cuban. He doesn't answer to stockholders and he is not, as I say, intertwined with huge regulatory and legislative needs in Washington, the same people who own most media outlets in this country, whether you're talking about GE with NBC, Viacom with CBS. Yes, they split, but it's - Disney with ABC or Time Warner with CNN or Murdoch with Fox.

These people are asking for great favors of people in power in Washington and they don't - perhaps unintendedly so, but that is anathema to the kind of play no favorites, pull no punches, hard- hitting, gutsy reporting. Particularly at length and in some depth.

KURTZ: You're not saying that you pulled your punches at CBS but that the corporate entanglements were in the back of your mind?

RATHER: That's exactly what I'm saying.

KURTZ: All right. You recently went on Bill Maher's HBO show and you had some things to say about Fox News which, not shockingly, Bill O'Reilly later took issue with. Let's play a clip from the "O'Reilly Factor" and we'll see the exchange.



RATHER: I think it is fair to say, Bill, in fact, I know it is, that Fox News operates in at least a somewhat different way that every other news organization that I know. That they have their talking points. In other words, somebody in the hierarchy, whether this is Roger Ailes who runs the place or not, we know that they get talking points from the White House.

BILL O'REILLY, FOX NEWS HOST: Well, Mr. Rather's assertions are nonsense, untrue, seriously dopey. I've been here from the beginning and I have never seen a White House talking points and I don't know anyone else who has seen one either.

I asked senior management if they have ever seen a White House talking points. No one had.


KURTZ: Seriously dopey, says Bill O'Reilly. How do you respond, Dan Rather?

RATHER: Well, first of all, Bill has invited me to be on his program and I intend to be on the program. I stand by what I said on the Bill Maher program. Not only is it true but it is widely known to be true and I do know it to be true.

Bill has a different view. He is entitled to that view but they can't have it both ways. They can't on the one hand, day after day, week after week, take the administration's point of view and use their talking points and then turn around, particularly when the president's own popularity begins to slide some, try to disassociate themselves with that.

I want to make it very clear, Howard, as I did on the Bill Maher program, I have great respect for Roger Ailes and what he has done with Fox News and I think this, contrary to what some people think, I think that the addition of Fox News to the American media landscape has in the main and overall probably been a good thing and I said words to that effect in the program.

But I stand by what I said.

KURTZ: But are you saying that Fox News often takes the same line as the Bush administration or are you saying that pieces of paper are literally faxed over or e-mailed over ...

RATHER: I don't know about pieces of paper being faxed over. I certainly am saying the first, that they often take the same line, and exactly the same line in exactly the same words. That I said that I know they use talking points from the White House and by the way, I did say that's not only not an indictable offense but it's journalism practiced in a certain way. I don't think there is anything wrong with it, quite honestly.

KURTZ: Mm-hmm.

RATHER: It is not the way I choose to operate and a lot of people in journalism don't but I don't see anything wrong with it.

I do think - I wouldn't say wrong, but it's unbecoming on the one hand to do it and on the other hand to say, well, we never do that.

Again, I want to be explicitly clear. Bill O'Reilly may never get White House talking points and I believe him when he says he doesn't get it. I also believe when he says he checked the top management and top management said we never see pieces of paper, whatever ...

But Howard, with our young men and women dying in Iraq and Afghanistan and getting severely wounded, with a huge deficit ballooning, with all the problems we got, it's a little hard to justify spending this much time talking about it, or for that matter having anybody else talk about it, although it's clearly their choice and it's been Bill's choice.

But I think far too much has been made out of this. Because it's not about me. It's not about Bill O'Reilly. It's about trying to get the truth to the American people.


KURTZ: When we come back, Dan Rather on his messy departure from CBS and his successor, Katie Couric.

And coming at 11:00 a.m. Eastern, Wolf Blitzer interviews Iraq's vice president on LATE EDITION and later at 1:00 p.m. Eastern, John Roberts and THIS WEEK AT WAR.


KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. More now from my interview with Dan Rather.


KURTZ: Dan, you made no secret that you had hoped to continue at CBS after a 44 year career there. Twenty five years as anchor but you said you were offered no meaningful work at "60 Minutes" to continue.

Did you feel badly treated by the network?

RATHER: The short answer is yes, perhaps it was unjustified but having said that, I had 44 long, good years, living my dream, leading what I believe was my destiny at CBS News in 24 of those years doing the CBS "Evening News."

I love the people at CBS News and part of me will always be pulling for them but I have moved on. CBS is in my rear view mirror and while I wish it had ended better, it didn't. Life's like that. I've got a lot more breaks and a lot more luck and have been blessed a lot more than I ever deserved so while I would say that the ending wasn't exactly what I would I have liked it to have been, I hope it will be taken in that context.

KURTZ: Do you think that the problems that you had with the story about President Bush and the National Guard which the network retracted and which you apologized for was a factor in CBS deciding to move in a different direction?

RATHER: Well, I don't know what was in their head. I think it was a factor. I don't think it was the only factor.

For example, Les Moonves said at one point if he had his way he would blow up CBS News and start all over again. At another point he was quoted as saying - I think not once but several time that Ed Murrow had been dead a very long time and he wanted to disassociate himself and CBS News from that, which is his right to do so.

But I didn't and I don't -- Ed Murrow to me set the platinum standard for electronic journalism and programs like "See It Now" quite frankly in my head, doing "Dan Rather Reports" for HDNet every weeknight - on Tuesday nights, every week on Tuesday nights, that that is a standard I am going to live up to. I want that to be something living, breathing within me.

KURTZ: Right.

RATHER: And CBS News wanted to go in a different direction under the command of Mr. Moonves and so be it. They have gone their way and I have gone mine.

KURTZ: Moonves has said that the blowing up the building quote was intended as a joke.

CBS "Evening News" for three and a half months now headed by Katie Couric, sitting in your old anchor chair. Any thoughts on the direction of that program?

RATHER: Well, not many because I don't get to see it often as I would like to see it. I have seen it some now. I still think they are in a transition stage. I think she is in a transition stage. I think it is clear they are doing what Les Moonves said they wanted to do and that is go in a different direction.

As best as I can figure out, they, Ms. Couric and the others are trying to bring at least some of he flavor of the "Today Show" to an evening news program.

But it's still early. I said, I think, to you before, Howard, I think a fair time to assess it would be maybe February of this coming year and after, which is inevitable, Ms. Couric comes on and has to hold air for hours on end with some big national tragedy, 9/11, Challenger explosion or some other big breaking story.

When those two things happen, we get to February and we've had one or two of these occasions where the anchor has to go in the anchor chair and command air for hours on end.

When those two things happen we are going to know a lot more about the final direction, the new direction is that they have chosen.

KURTZ: I've got just a few seconds. How many more years do you plan on flying around the country and chasing stories?

RATHER: Well, as long as I have my health and God's grace and as long as anybody will employ me I intend to do it.

I have a passion for news. I have a lot of flaws, Howard, as you well know, and sometimes point them out to my chagrin.

But as long as I am able to do it and somebody will employ me to do it then I intend to keep on doing it because I love news.

KURTZ: Dan Rather, nice to have you back on the program. Appreciate you joining us.

RATHER: Always good to see you Howard, thanks.


KURTZ: Up next Tom DeLay hits the blogosphere and promptly gets into a fight.

And al Jazeera gets a makeover of sorts. Our media minute is next.

Later Obama mania won't quit. A freshman senator goes to New Hampshire and is mobbed by the media.


KURTZ: Time now for a look at the news business in our media minute.

Tom DeLay started a blog this week. And it took him about, well, a day to pick a fight with liberal blogger Arianna Huffington. And the indicted ex-congressman's site did it by making fun of her accent. The headline, "Christianity is so tahhhrible Dahhhling!"

How, DeLay's blog demanded, could Huffington object to a video at the Pentagon in which uniformed members speak about their Christian faith? Arianna fired back. "Far from skulking or acquiring intel," as DeLay had put it, "what we actually did was" quote, "'link' to a story written by a reporter for 'Reuters', which is a newswire service, a handy place to get" quote "'facts.'" Welcome to blogosphere, dahling.

In an interview on RELIABLE SOURCES last week I asked White House spokesman Tony Snow about what became a heated exchange with NBC's David Gregory over the Iraq Study Group report.


DAVID GREGORY, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT: Can this report be seen as anything other than a rejection of this president's handling of the war?

TONY SNOW, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: You need to understand that trying to frame it in a partisan way is actually at odds with what the group itself says it wanted to do.

(END VIDEO CLIP) KURTZ: Snow stuck to his guns.


KURTZ: But when you say to David Gregory, you're asking the question in a partisan way, a few months ago you accused him of asking a question that reflected the Democratic point of view. That's a really serious charge.

SNOW: Well, and I will tell you why. Because number one it did not reflect the stated views and approaches of the commission itself.


KURTZ: But on Thursday, the press secretary retracted the charge of partisanship.


SNOW: I thought a lot about that and I was wrong. So I want to apologize and tell you I'm sorry for it.


KURTZ: Hey, better late than never.

Al Jazeera English had a tough time in the U.S. where no major cable or satellite system is carrying the Arab network. But could the problem be that the anchors are a bit too reserved? The "Daily Show's" Samantha Bee dropped by the Washington bureau and offered some advice.


SAMANTHA BEE, "THE DAILY SHOW": What's going to happen next. I need some banter. Let's talk about segues. The president's advisers will continue to reach out to the Iraqi leader. Anyhoo.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Oh, my mama may could teach him a thing or two.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I've met your mama and he wouldn't be able to sit down for a week. Anyhoo. Up next, immigrants, are they stealing your blonde teenagers?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And later, we take a hard look why some of Hollywood's hottest celebrities aren't wearing panties.

BEE: Nailed it.


KURTZ: And the publishing genius who made the deal for O.J. Simpson's ludicrous book "If I Did It" and the Fox television special is out of a job. Judith Regan, who worked for Rupert Murdoch's Harper Collins was fired Friday weeks after the project was canceled. And Regan's next book project would have been a controversial re- imagining, salacious re-imagining of Mickey Mantle's life. Sounds like a strike-out to me.

Ahead in our next half hour, all about Obama. Why have journalists made him the star of the 2008 presidential campaign? And the Diana investigation. Will the media ever let go of the late princess? That's all after a check of the hour's' top stories from the CNN center in Atlanta.





SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), ILLINOIS: Good afternoon. My name is Barack Obama, and it must a slow news day.


KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. Barack Obama's trip to New Hampshire last weekend proved two things. First, journalists find someone to swoon over in every campaign cycle. Two, they all turn to the same book of cliches.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Barack Obama, the rising rock star.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He has rock star popularity.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Barack Obama, greeted like a rock star.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Huge crowds, literally. They would make a rock star envious.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: For his part, it was a rock star's performance.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: He's being treated as a rock star in New Hampshire.

CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC ANCHOR: And a state with the nation's first presidential primary received him like a rock star.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: But Mick Jagger doesn't get treatment like this. As for a certain first former first lady on the verge of running...

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Hillary who? That's what some Democrats might be thinking after Senator Barack Obama's stunning visit to New Hampshire. CHARLES GIBSON, ABC NEWS: For some time now, many thought Hillary Clinton to be a prohibitive favorite for the Democratic nomination. And then came the prospect of a Barack Obama candidacy.

BILL O'REILLY, FOX ANCHOR: The committed left has bailed on Hillary Clinton over Iraq, and now sees Obama as their big hope in 2008.


KURTZ: So what explains this outbreak of Obama fever?

Joining us now in San Francisco, Debra Saunders, a columnist for "The San Francisco Chronicle." And here in Washington, Lynn Sweet, Washington correspondent for the "Chicago Sun-Times." And Eugene Robinson, associate editor and columnist for the "Washington Post."

Lynn Sweet, you were in New Hampshire last weekend with 150 journalists. Wasn't this a wee bit of overkill for a guy who hasn't even declared yet?

LYNN SWEET, "CHICAGO SUN-TIMES": Well, I don't think it's overkill. And I think the idea of declaring or not is the old notion. I think if you're in New Hampshire in the context, frankly, you're running until you tell people otherwise. And because people recognize that, I think, you know, having a massive press corps come out was fairly appropriate, given the circumstances.

KURTZ: It's only a year in advance. Gene Robinson, George Will, the conservative columnist, is the latest pundit to urge Obama to run. He says, if you get the girl up on her tiptoes, you've got to kiss her. Why are journalists just getting down on their knees and begging this guy to get into the race?

EUGENE ROBINSON, "WASHINGTON POST": Because he's a great story. He's a great character. He has all that charisma. He has the wonderful personal history. And, you know, and he has something to say. I mean, he has a way of connecting with people that people, I think, find fresh and exciting. And you know how we love a story. We really need to get rid of this rock star metaphor. We should ban that today here on this show.

KURTZ: Well, it's banned on this show at least for the next ten minutes.

Debra Saunders, what about the inconvenient fact that Barack Obama has got two years in the Senate, no national security credentials, a rather liberal voting record. Why do the normal journalistic rules of scrutiny seem to be suspended here?

DEBRA SAUNDERS, "SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE": Well, I think it's because he's a rock star. No. You know, I at first thought he shouldn't run now. He needs more experience. He needs to get on the campaign trail. But the more I think about it and the more I watch the coverage, Barack Obama should run because the biggest advantage he has is he doesn't have all those votes tying him down. You know, you stay in the Senate long enough, you start talking like Joe Biden.

Right now he's crackling, and he's fun to watch and listen to, and I think that's why the media are looking at him. Democrats are desperate to have a nominee who is not Hillary Clinton who can win. And that's why everybody is looking at Barack Obama. He has that charisma. And the fact that he doesn't have a lot of experience, in this political climate, it may a plus.

KURTZ: Lynn Sweet, your newspaper and the "Chicago Tribune" covered Obama's apology for doing business with an indicted fund- raiser named Tony Rezko. This was a guy who bought a vacant piece of land next to a house that Obama bought the same day and then he sold part of the vacant lot to Senator Obama. There was a piece about this in the "Washington Post" this morning, but it's gotten very little national pickup. Why is that?

SWEET: Well, actually, you're the one who can answer me, because you work for the "Washington Post," too. It's on page six of the Sunday "Washington Post." The "Chicago Tribune" and the "Chicago Sun- Times," major papers in the United States, had very complete stories on this before the November election.

KURTZ: Right. This is a two-month-old story.

SWEET: Yes. So, you tell me. Why did your paper wait until today? I don't know. I can't answer to that. You know, we do our job in Chicago. I don't know why the -- it took the blogosphere and a lot of people that do read the papers that are online to get the "Washington Post" to do something.

KURTZ: I think it's because Barack Obama is largely getting a pass from the kind of intensive scrutiny the media delivered to any presidential candidate, but that that will change once he's formally in the race.

ROBINSON: That automatically changes. I think you see it changing now. I mean, he's now a factor. He's not a novelty anymore. He went to New Hampshire. He, for all intents and purposes...

KURTZ: He's been on Monday night football.

ROBINSON: Right, he's been on Monday night football. He's a candidate until, as Lynn says, he says otherwise. And, so of course he gets the scrutiny. I mean, every minute of his life now becomes scrutinable.

SWEET: But, it is remarkable -- I mean, we talked about this a few weeks ago -- that, in the sense this -- there is a -- what is that movie, "Groundhog Day"? The stories so far have kind of been the same. Isn't -- he's here, he's new on the scene, charismatic, some of the stuff we touched on. Now, for the first time, what you're seeing are people who have written that not once, but maybe twice. People are moving on to looking at other issues.

You know, but for example, earlier this month, Senator Obama with Senator Lugar passed a bill with shoulder-mounted anti-aircraft missiles. OK. That's the kind of thing that, interestingly enough, what he actually was doing in the Senate, by all these national publications that spend night and day covering it, no one has even written one story yet about anything that he's done in his work in the Senate.

KURTZ: That's a very good point. And the media seemed determined, Lynn, to turn this into a two-person race. Cover of "Newsweek" just out today, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama. Part of the sub-headline is, "Is America Ready for Either One?"

Debra Saunders, let me play a byte for you from Rush Limbaugh's radio show in which he talked about the way Hillary Clinton is being treated by the media these days.


RUSH LIMBAUGH, "THE RUSH LIMBAUGH SHOW": Hillary needs to loosen up. Nobody really knows her. Nobody really knows who she is. She's just so tightly wound that she appears fake. So what do they want her to do? Dance, smile, tell jokes? Wear low-cut dresses? Hell, wear dresses?


KURTZ: Debra Saunders, what accounts for the contrast between the way Senator Clinton is treated and the way Senator Obama is treated?

SAUNDERS: Well, everybody has seen Hillary Clinton for years. And she is not a new flavor. Barack Obama is a new flavor. And, by the way, I think the next round of stories will be that he's too superficial, written by people who have just written incredibly superficial stuff. I mean, Maureen Dowd called him superficial and got into the whole style issue. What's that?

And Hillary Clinton is somebody we've seen for a long time. I couldn't disagree more with Rush Limbaugh. We know a lot about her on a personal level. We know who she is. We've seen her, we know what she's going to be like.

I think the other thing people are waiting for is they're wondering what kind of mud the Clinton machine is going to turn out on Barack Obama, and they're waiting to see -- for the mud fight. That's what I'm waiting to watch.

SWEET: But, you know, actually on the point, though, of -- you know, I covered Senator Obama since she was -- Senator Obama, Senator Clinton, since she was the first lady. Two good Illinoisans, so I get them mixed up in my head. Actually, one on one, when you see her, she is a warm, very nice person. So her personal persona gets mixed up when it gets transferred to the national stage on it.

But the thing is the Clinton-Obama comparison isn't going to go very well, I think, until people first do the stories just on exactly what he's done so far, because so much is known about what she's done so far. KURTZ: And there's also the Hillary and Bill comparison. The "Washington Post" has a story this morning about whether Bill will be a distraction in the race.

Gene Robinson, one final question on Barack Obama. Black and white question, if I might. Is Obama a hot media property in spite of his race or because of it?

ROBINSON: More because of it than in spite of it, of course. I mean, you know, he's the only black U.S. senator, which makes him stand out. And you know, he has a legitimate shot at having a real impact in this race, you know, and he is a black man. So, sure, it's a reason for the media focus.

KURTZ: I want to turn now to some dramatic events that began unfolding last Wednesday, when Senator Tim Johnson was hospitalized, found to have bleeding on the brain, underwent brain surgery. And the coverage was, of course, sympathetic to Senator Johnson, but all talked about how, if he were to die, that would change party control or certainly could change party control in the United States Senate.

Let's listen to somebody who called into "Washington Post" radio to talk about that coverage.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think it's disgusting that they're even thinking about that at this point in time in this man's life. It shows a callous, uncaring attitude, and it should not even be mentioned until we know that this man is safe.


KURTZ: Debra Saunders, was the coverage callous and uncaring?

SAUNDERS: Of course it was, and it should be. I mean, in politics, when something like this happens, there are people in kitchen tables across any state where, if somebody's sick like that, discussing who is going to run for the seat if there's a vacancy. In this case, the governor, of course can name a Republican. The whole makeup of the Senate is at stake. That's a big story. And I'm sorry if it is cold and callous, but that's what everybody's talking about. It's not the job of the news media to not report what people are thinking.

SWEET: Well, I think it's also the part of what reporters do, is to point out what the situation is. If reporters didn't do that -- I know it would be if you're personal friends or family of the senator -- but this is the threshold things of what reporters do, is to deal with reality.

KURTZ: I happen to agree with you, but with the senator having just been rushed to the hospital, it does appear kind of insensitive to a lot of people.

ROBINSON: It seemed really ghoulish and insensitive, I think, to a lot of people. And, you know, it's interesting because it puts us in a weird position. On the one hand, yes, there's a story here. But we're going to alienate readers that way. We're going to alienate viewers. And I think there are a lot of people who feel the way that caller at "The Washington Post" radio felt.

KURTZ: Let me take this moment to wish Senator Johnson and his family well as he struggles with his recovery. Gene Robinson, Lynn Sweet, Debra Saunders in San Francisco, thanks very much for joining us.

Still to come, British authorities close the case on Princess Diana's death, but are the media still helping to fuel the conspiracy theories?


KURTZ: Welcome back. This seemingly endless story of Princess Diana's death hit the states big time with a report in London's "Observer" That U.S. intelligence officials allegedly eavesdropped on her phone calls before her fatal car crash. The National Security Agency says it never targeted Diana for monitoring, and the CIA called the charge ludicrous. On Thursday, after a three-year British investigation, Lord Stevens issued his findings.


KEITH MILLER, NBC NEWS: No surprises here. In fact, the report says that Diana, Princess of Wales and her lover, Dodi al-Fayed, died in a tragic traffic accident.


KURTZ: The controversy is far from over. Mohammed al-Fayed, whose son was killed in the crash, telling "Today's" Meredith Vieira that he didn't believe the finding by Lord Stevens.


MOHAMMED AL-FAYED, FATHER OF DODI AL-FAYED: He'd been definitely blackmailed to say exactly what the British intelligence want him to say.

MEREDITH VIEIRA, NBC NEWS: You were saying that -- I just want to make sure I understand this -- you're saying that Sir John Stevens was blackmailed by British intelligence at the blessing of the royal family? Because I know you've long believed that the royal family was responsible.


KURTZ: Joining us now to talk about the American and British media coverage, in London Robert Jobson, royal correspondent for the "Evening Standard," and CNN international correspondent Richard Quest, who is based in London but joins us this morning from New York.

Robert Jobson, watching the coverage, it occurred to me that for Britain, this is like the JFK assassination. It never seems to end. How could this still be such a big story nine years after Princess Diana's death.

ROBERT JOBSON, "EVENING STANDARD": The main reason for that is because Mohammed Fayed has pursued it with the legal courts. But there are -- I've read all our 832 pages of this report that Lord Stevens suggested the media did, and I'm afraid I don't believe that all the questions that were posed by Mohammed Fayed have actually been answered.

I think it's a very slick operation. I think the report was a wonderful piece of P.R. But ti also, controversially over here, on the day that the report was released, was also the day that Scotland Yard interviewed the prime minister, the first ever serving prime minister, Tony Blair, to be interviewed in a criminal investigation.

So, you know, I can understand Mohammed Fayed's belief that the establishment is conspiring against him. However, I've always believed that this is a tragic road accident and I still believe that. But I do believe there are reports in this -- there are elements of this report that do not answer key questions.

KURTZ: Richard Quest -- let me turn to Richard Quest. I know that there probably are unanswered questions, as there are in any murder investigation or death investigation. But on some level, the media keep milking this story.

ROBERT QUEST, CNN ANCHOR: And that is exactly the point, Howard. You see, Robert Jobson, for whom I have the greatest respect, is in a very difficult position. If you look at the way the media covered the publication of the Stevens report -- on the one hand, the morning after, it was no conspiracy, no murder, no cover-up, let the woman rest. However, in the next breath, people like Robert Jobson, of course, have to occasionally feed the conspiracy theory, as when Mohammed al-Fayed comes up and pronounces upon them.

So the media is constantly, to use that dreadful phrase, conflicted. It knows common sense says that it was a tragic road accident, but at the same time, it loves to stoke the fire of conspiracy, because every time Robert Jobson puts Diana on the front page of the "Evening Standard," it sells more papers. And Bob Jobson, for whom I have the highest respect, is among the best practitioners at knowing what's happening in the royal family.

KURTZ: Are you stoking the fires and feeding the conspiracy theories?

JOBSON: No more than this program is, to be brutally honest. There are newspapers like the "Daily Express" that run a campaign supporting Mr. Fayed. I personally do not agree with what Richard said.

I did actually conduct my own investigation, as Richard -- I (INAUDIBLE) he respects me. I did actually look into this. I found that 18 key witnesses into this inquiry who are key eyewitnesses to the accident itself were not actually reinterviewed by the Stevens inquiry. It's a report I wrote two days before the Stevens' report was published.

So I do think there are questions to be asked. I don't think like other papers like the "Daily Express" the "Evening Standard" writes anything other than the truth or as near as, damn it, that we can get to the truth that the establishment in this country allows to do so.

As Richard knows full well, when I broke the story that Charles was to marry Camilla, we didn't put that to the palace. We got that from reliable sources. And this is what this program is surely about.

QUEST: But Robert, you have to agree that the newspapers last week in the U.K. were on the very odd see-saw. On the one hand, the "Sun" and the "Mirror" and all the red-tops were constantly saying, no conspiracy, let the woman rest in peace. But, on the other hand, they do have this -- penchant every time there's a possibility -- that the conspiracy theory rears itself up again, they are leading the charge in that direction.

JOBSON: But, Richard, look at the facts. This is last week, we had unprecedented -- I was right at "The Evening Standard." I had a report to say 18 key witnesses were not there to be interviewed, and they hadn't been interviewed by the Stevens report. These are people that saw the accident taking place, were there moments before the crash. But they weren't investigated by Stevens. An $8 million investigation, yet eyewitnesses were not interviewed. I personally...

KURTZ: Robert, I need to jump in.

JOBSON: ... believe that's worth a story.

KURTZ: Robert, I need to jump in because we're short on time. I wanted to ask you about something you wrote on Monday. It's -- you wrote, quote, "American intelligence agencies bugged Princess Diana's telephone over her relationship with a U.S. billionaire" -- this is the financier Teddy Forstman. Now, the National Security Agency in the U.S. does have 39 documents that make reference to Diana, but there seemed to be no evidence in this report that she was targeted. So any second thoughts about that lead?

DOBSON: Yes, that the -- Stevens asked the NSA if they bugged her or if they had any details to give to them. They just said no, we don't. It's an intelligence agency. They're not going to open their files to Lord Stevens or anybody. They don't have to. And you know that as well as I do.

KURTZ: Richard Quest, the day or so before the report was issued, we suddenly turned on our television and saw Prince William and Prince Harry going before the cameras to talk about a tenth anniversary concert and memorial for their mother. Was this a plain old media attempt to pre-empt the findings of the report?

QUEST: I don't think so much to pre-empt. I think this is something that they are basically saying keep your eye on the bigger picture. We -- for example, we had the report the same week that Prince William had his passing out ceremony in front of his grandmother, Queen Elizabeth, from Sandhurst. We then also saw for the first Kate Middleton being admitted, if you like, to a major royal event. And now the question becomes when -- and Robert certainly is much closer on that one -- that he'll be engaged.

KURTZ: All right, we got to go, Richard.

QUEST: The truth is the royal family is extremely experienced at handling this sort of...

KURTZ: I've noticed. Thank you both very much. We're -- our time is up. When we come back, how the media have made headline news out of President Bush's non-decision on Iraq.


KURTZ: When it comes to President Bush making any change in Iraq policy, nothing much has happened since the release of last week's Baker -Hamilton report. But in the news business, "nothing happened" isn't much of a story. Which brings us to a trip through the "Spin Cycle."


KURTZ (voice-over): The president did take action on the rhetorical front, with a new slogan to replace the old stay the course.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: And that advice is an important part and important component of putting together a new way forward in Iraq.

CONDOLEEZZA RICE, SECRETARY OF STATE: To put before the American people the new way forward that we need to take in Iraq.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, he talked today about a new way forward.

KATIE COURIC, CBS NEWS: For what he calls a new way forward in Iraq.

KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: He wants a new way forward, but can he reverse the course of war?

KURTZ: And the White House, eager to combat reports of an isolated president, made a great show of Bush consulting with others.

MARTHA RADDATZ, ABC NEWS: The president has spent the last year talking over and over again about his strategy for victory in Iraq, but this week, he says, he's listening.

COURIC: Congressional leaders were at the White House today to talk about Iraq.

ED HENRY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: The president doesn't want to be pinned down on details. He's in listening mode.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The president says he wants even more advice.

BRIAN WILLIAMS, NBC NEWS: It's important to the White House to show the president's deliberations. Today, that meant a very public trip a few blocks away to the State Department.

KURTZ: Bush also made a point of calling in some retired generals.

WAYNE DOWNING (RET.), NBC NEWS MILITARY ANALYST: I know I, for one, really made the point not only no more U.S. forces, but I also believe that the key to this thing is going to be the Iraqi security forces.

KURTZ: But still, the media sense of impatience grew.

JIM AXELROD, CBS NEWS: The president still is not ready to announce a policy shift on Iraq.

KURTZ: News organizations were eagerly anticipating the big event.

WILLIAMS: In about a week, President Bush will ask the networks for television time to share his ideas for a new strategy in Iraq with the American people.

But then came the word: no Christmas present for the press. No speech on Iraq this month.

BLITZER: The way forward in Iraq gets stalled.

BRIT HUME, FOX NEWS: The speech that was supposed to be pre- Christmas is now post-Christmas and could come as late as the State of the Union.


KURTZ: The Iraq story has gotten so big that the media beast must be fed every day, as the White House knows all too well. That's because the one thing certain to fill the screen, in the absence of any new Bush strategy, is footage of a latest car bombing or suicide attack.

Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. Join us again next Sunday morning, 10:00 Eastern, for another critical look at the media.

"LATE EDITION" with Wolf Blitzer begins right now.


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